Learning about the economic empowerment of women

Secure access by women to productive resources such as land, water and financial capital has a ripple effect.  When women build assets and achieve better economic status, they develop higher self esteem, are more visible in their communities, more mobile, and their children are better fed. Wider impacts can include greater respect for women's rights, better ability of women to negotiate sexual relations and a consequent reduction in HIV infection, and positive changes in gender roles. 

  • Are women-headed households worse off? (2010) All too often women-headed households are the poorest of the poor, and many IFAD supported projects target them as such.  However, although single-parent households are associated with poverty and social problems, the reality is much more complex and it is important for poverty and social assessments to understand these dynamics when targeting the poor rural women.  The 2007 IFAD publication "Polishing the Stone" looks at some of the dynamics underlying this growing phenomenon, and cautions against making assumptions.
  • Why are women's enterprises smaller than men's? (2010) Effective mobilisation of women's labour and skills is often viewed as a source of additional household income.  Accordingly, most rural development projects include components to support the creation of better possibilities for women to start small enterprises.  However, the 2007 IFAD publication "Polishing the Stone" highlights several underlying gender issues which can limit the success of these initiatives.
  • Nepal: How women and their households cope with food insecurity (1998) A 1998 study of food security in three IFAD supported projects in India and Nepal found that despite some progress, household-level and external challenges to food security continued to pervade. Women were the most involved in finding ways to deal with food insecurity, and their strategies were often harmful to their own, and their daughters', health and wellbeing.  However, the gender distribution of food varied amongst different
  • India: Transition to market production can temporarily threaten household food security (1996) A 1996 IFAD study in Andhra Pradesh argues that while a move to market-oriented production has the potential for more income and food, it also tends to weaken control over household food security and decision making by women.  Support to viable women's income-earning activities can give women some control and diversify the household's income sources and capacity to survive.
  • The Gambia:  Negotiating access to productive resources (2000) Although many development interventions actively promote the equitable control of and access to productive lands, in practice this assessment found that the land rights of women and other disadvantaged groups may fare better under a local bargaining process than where redistribution is pushed by external interventions.

Women see land ownership as a way to gain status and respect, not just as a means of production.  Land ownership has important effects, leading women to have a more active role in community affairs and greater equality in the home.  However, tenure rights are largely customary and many women need support to negotiate better conditions, even under traditional tenure systems. In other circumstances, there is a need to raise awareness that certain traditional practices no longer provide the social protection that may have justified them originally.

  • Uganda: Inheritance practices increase food insecurity (2000) This IFAD study found that only 10% of Ugandan husbands with wills leave property to their wives. The remaining 90% left it to the children with the stipulation that the mother should be looked after. However, the study reports that, in practice, often widows are dispossessed of their farmland and other assets.  Recognition of the critical situation of many widows and their families has led to their priority targeting under some programmes. 
  • Ghana: Improving women's access to land (1998) This evaluation of an IFAD supported project highlights the difficulties of improving and sustaining women's land rights. Despite women providing the majority of agricultural labour and sustenance crops in the region, they have little control over resources such as water and land, or even their own labour which is used first on the husband's land.  This in turn restricts women's access to credit, and freedom to make or contest household decisions.
  • African women farmers' need suitable tools (1998) This IFAD/FAO/Government of Japan study looked at the agricultural implements used by women farmers in five African countries: Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Women are working increasingly longer and harder in agriculture, yet the tools available to women are too few, too inefficient and almost always designed to be used by men.
  • Women's difficult access to irrigation (2001) The 2001 IFAD Rural Poverty Report argues for raising poor people's control over water-yielding assets. Irrigation can greatly improve returns from land, with beneficial results on household food insecurity and incomes. But the report also notes that the poor, and particularly poor women, have a difficult time obtaining access to irrigation water. Irrigation assets are highly valued, and in the competition, women often lose out.

Women not only need access to productive resources, they need to be able to use those resources efficiently. This requires well-focused training tailored to women's needs, education, access to markets and market information, and production support services such as extension. Rural financial services should be part of a package that includes capacity building, and must be based on an understanding of women's needs and demands.

  • Mali: Women participate in the work, not the decision making (2002) This evaluation of an IFAD programme found that while women and young people were active in supplying labour for the village contribution to development projects, their involvement in decision making was weak.  The report numbers several barriers to meaningful participation by women in the programme, and direct benefits to women, with lessons to consider in the design of future such interventions.
  • Rural women most excluded from labour markets (2001) IFAD's 2001 Rural Poverty Report notes that access to labour markets is important in rural areas, not only for landless people, but also farm households who may need income to supplement subsistence crops and pay for essential goods and services.  However, a number of factors can inhibit the access of the rural poor, and especially women, to labour markets.  Some of these are issues of physical access to places where employment is available, others related to education and skills, or social and cultural factors.
  • Uganda: Gender differences in control and use of income (2000) According to a 2000 IFAD gender field assessment, rural Uganda is not unusual in having a degree of asymmetry between women's labour contribution and women's decision-making on the use of the income generated.  The study found that women's control of agricultural processes and decision making lessens as the crop or activity becomes more profitable.   This factor is important to recognise in the design of projects, as a potential unintended consequence of improving the profitability of women's labour and crops. 
  • Syria: Women participate in income generation, but not in spending decisions (1999) IFAD evaluations found that, despite their important contribution to crop and livestock production, most Syrian rural women have little access to resources and credit, and no role in marketing.  This has implications for control of the income generated. And rural women in Syria tend to have little decision-making power within the household on the disposal of family income.

Micro and small enterprise development programmes need to tailor their support to the different needs and risk-taking behaviours of the various categories of women entrepreneurs, and to the different constraints they face. Attention should be given to the different opportunities and constraints faced by women and men, to the reasons why they are vulnerable and how they build coping strategies.

  • Why women need better access to markets (2001) IFAD's 2001 Rural Poverty Report looks at constraints to market access, and finds that these can be structural, related to information and organisation, and physical – that is distance and transportation.  In almost all cases where such physical constraints exist, they have a greater negative effect on women than on men. Men often step in as intermediaries, taking women's produce to market for them, and in these cases the research finds that women do not usually get all the proceeds.
  • Pakistan: Barriers to women working as paraveterinarians (2001) A 2001 IFAD study found that women participants in training for para-veterinarians found it difficult to establish themselves in private ventures, particularly where they had to compete with men.  Generally, the women tended to apply their skills within their own homes instead of using their skills in an income-generating service enterprise.  The study identifies several barriers to women's success as paraveterinarians in this traditional setting.  www.ifad.org/gender/learning/sector/extension/pk_paravets.htm
  • Grenada: Young women want to start small businesses (2000) This IFAD report found that a large proportion of rural youth are no longer interested in agriculture, and cannot find off-farm employment, and are therefore likely to be interested in setting up their own small businesses.  Interestingly, a recent UNICEF survey in four communities in Grenada showed that among those interested in starting a business, the ratio was of females to males was 3:2. However, males had more skills, more time and more opportunities. 
  • Ghana: Understanding the needs of rural women entrepreneurs (2000) This appraisal of rural finance services in Northern Ghana found that the majority of informal small enterprises, so important to household income in rural areas, are owned and operated by women.  There are many shared characteristics between the enterprises of women and men, but certain differences were also noted, including a high level of risk avoidance amongst women.  www.ifad.org/gender/learning/sector/finance/43.htm
  • India: Women's enterprise choices in Manipur (2000) A 2000 IFAD funded review of self-help groups in three villages in Manipur identified the types of micro-enterprise in which women invested their loans. This focus provided unusual depth of social information on the advantages and disadvantages of different activities from the point of view of women.  One important finding is the relationship between a woman's choice of activity and the labour requirements, in a situation where women are already overworked.  
  • Lao PDR: Women's access to markets (2000) A 2000 case study of an IFAD supported project promoting women's weaving activities among ethnic groups in Lao PDR found that increases in women's income has an impact on the division of labour in the household, and thus on their mobility and empowerment.
  • Sao Tome and Principe: Women fish traders play an important role in the local economy (1999) This IFAD study produced some interesting findings on the distinct roles of men and women in fishing communities.   While men catch the fish, women take over as soon as the fish are unloaded from the boats, buying the fish, taking them to market and in some cases processing them.   This creates a significant interdependency between the men's and women's economic activities.
  • Syria: Profitability of women's income-generating activities (1999) A 1999 evaluation of IFAD support to income generating activities for rural women in Syria showed that the most profitable activities involved livestock or poultry.  Only rarely was women's income from sewing or handicrafts comparable to livestock.  This experience provided a number of important lessons, on participation, coordination of training and credit, profitability and the availability of information. 
  • China: Women need support to start small enterprises (1995) According to a 1995 IFAD study, in rural China women tend to be more active than men in establishing small income-generating activities. They participate out of necessity, with their family's food security and welfare as their main concern. However, the low prestige of off-farm work and enterprise in this rural society means that women are often reluctant to start new initiatives and take on the market risks.